Wednesday, February 22, 2012

About Me... and Volkswagens

Most people in the VW world know me as Hambone, but I go by almost anything including "hey you", especially if you have a sandwich for me.  Hopefully it's a really good one too.

A frequent position

  I have been blessed by air cooled Volkwagens since about 1973.  When I was a little guy of 4 years old, I was allowed to sit on my dad's lap and "drive" his pumpkin orange 1970 Westfalia all but 1/2 mile down a deserted night street.  I was delighted, and still remember that moment as if it were yesterday.

"Ma" enjoying a Cascade summer

All in turn, Volkwagens have delighted me, frustrated me, cursed me, and made me a better man.  What better way to learn a sacred patience than fighting malfunctioned antique technology?

my first Beetle around 1992 (and little feet over there)

Terian (now about to graduate college)

In my opinion, a better car has not been built than the air cooled Volkswagen.  A strange product of Hitler's Germany and an eventual apology to the world, there is still no better buy for basic and reliable transportation.  Parts are affordable, and most repairs can be accomplished with simple hand tools.  Not only are the cars themselves a Zen lesson in balanced efficiency, but each individual assembly is at once durable and thoughtfully engineered and constructed.  Obviously so, as 40 year old cars continue to be used as "daily drivers".

Teri at 5, too damn cute

Erin's 1968 Beetle "Bella" and our family car

Like many American boys, I coveted the automobile - and the older and snazzier the better.  I marveled at sleek tailfins stretching the imagination.  A "for sale" sign on a shiny '50s Packard Clipper made me dream of having enough money.  But for me, the era with the deepest compulsion is roughly 1920-1940, America's golden age of technology.  This era saw the development of the automobile, the airplane, diesel and gasoline engines, and the glory days of steam power before it was supplanted by internal combustion.
This was an era of tidy efficiency and radical design, when streamlining was on the tip of everyone's lips.  It was in this era when a quiet German engineer began developing a small strange car that would eventually change the way we look at our world.

Scott, my childhood friend and rival from across the street, competed for vehicular coolness.  Never mind we were too young to drive, there was something about the freedom the auto provides that seemed to be seeped into the very metal and acrid black of the tires.  So, back and forth he drove a rusty Model A Ford, down a too-short-driveway and unknowingly back into 1925.  It did not matter that we sat on bare seat springs.

  To compete, I lovingly washed and waxed my dad's abandoned '65 Mustang, sitting in my grandparents garage for 20 years collecting filth as it remained static.  Wimbledon White with a black convertible top and interior - it was a damn classy car.  I could not believe it lie dead in a garage instead of eating up the miles.  In an attempted father-son reconciliation, my Grandfather got the car running, and I too was able to delight in the all-too-short road of their meager driveway.

Alas, the Mustang was not to be.  As far as I know it still sits in that garage, untouched since my loving hand of long ago.  Childhood vanished quick, and soon I would have the responsibility of a young family to take my attention.  But as baby soon blossomed into toddler, my passion for an earlier age would not rest.  I began to notice that funny little car from Germany.  I really wanted a piece of the 1930s, but that just didn't seem likely on the mean salted streets of Chicago.  Those winters eat cars whole.  I once saw a pothole swallow a milk truck.

In 1992 I had enough.  Life is too short to not enjoy it, and I wanted to cruise the streets in art-deco style in my very own post-hippy streamliner.  
Visiting distant family in Virginia, I discovered an abandoned 1966 Beetle that was for sale behind someone's house.  $200 later it was mine, towed to a place I could work on it and try to get it running - and hopefully drive the 800 miles back to Chicago.  I knew absolutely nothing about Volkswagens at that point, and armed with the trusty "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive" by John Muir, I set out to do my damndest.  

This book changed my life.

After countless hilarious trials and tribulations, I did manage to get the tired old car running well enough to take me home, its dim 6 volt headlamps from ancient and neglected wiring lighting the road like twin candles.  The transmission would pop out of gear in 4th, and the car would not start again if shut off.  I drove her non stop, 18 hours back to Chicago holding it in gear for the duration.  I will never forget the sight of both new tailpipes spinning through the air down a Virginia interstate, due to incorrectly installed clamps.  But it got me home.

 Chicago 1993, snazzy in new paint

Never mind those heater channels...

I was soon to discover that, everything - yes everything on that poor old car was worn worn out.  I spent most of my free time trying to get it running reliably, but like a sick horse begging for a bullet it continued to plague me with failure.  After replacing countless components, the engine died for the last time and I had enough.  It was heartbreaking to see it towed away to its new owner, but it needed more than I could give.
At the very least, I can say that this car taught me the magic of push starting single-handedly.  By running alongside and pushing with all your might, you can often get a Beetle rolling fast enough to hop in and pop the clutch, and soon be on your way.  I do not miss this.

But I could not resist the torture of a vehicle worn beyond its years.  I decided a split-window bus was the vehicle for me.  And one with a camper interior suited the budding naturalist I was to become.
This was pre-internet, mind you, so we had either newspaper classifieds, or the back pages of Hot VWs Magazine to give hope.  Only the wealthy could afford to peruse the fat pages of Hemmings Motor News, so the newspaper would have to do.  
One fine day I found the bus I was looking for in the Hot VWs classifieds.  It was a tired and gently rust-streaked 1964 Westfalia, with original owner no less - a WWII tailgunner now retired in St. Louis.  He assured me it should have no trouble at all making the trip back to Chicago; it had a brand new engine after all.
My Grandfather and I took an airplane down to St. Louis to pick up our new family member.
Needless to say, the bus wasn't quite as advertised.  It boasted a full compliment of cobwebs and rusty rockers, and a once again anemic 6 volt electrical system.  Only part of the engine was rebuilt, with most of the components worn beyond use.  But for $700 it still seemed a steal, with its late 50s camper interior still intact and classic styling resulting in many smiling peace signs from other motorists on the way home.
On the highway I quickly discovered that the steering was absolutely horrible, with almost an 180 deg. amount of slack in the steering wheel.  It was a very tense drive home, like trying to control a small speedboat in wayward waters.  Soon I would be knee-deep in Basket Case #2.

Chicago 1994

Once again I had a Volkwagen that I could never seem to get stabilized.  As soon as I'd fix something, another part would fail, frustrating me to no end.  And through all of this, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.  A new failure was completely new ground, and I had no idea what to expect.  But luckily through my wits and the kindness of John Muir and the good people at Bentley Publications I never had to fix the same failure twice.  I began to see the genius of a deceptively simple design.  I also began to realize that I needed a car that wasn't on its last legs if I were to actually go anywhere.

1995 just before the end

A sudden and sad separation and divorce left me with a split windowed white elephant.  I couldn't afford to restore her, and refused to drive in Chicago's winter salt.  The old girl would have to go.

But I did need a reliable car, and it felt like I was getting a handle on this VW mechanicking thing, or so it seemed...
Our next tragic victim was to be a 1973 Super Beetle, a Wunderbug refugee from New York City.  But this was a daily driver with shiny red paint.  Surely I'd be in the lap of maintenance free luxury.  I called her "The Prairie Rocket".

circa 1995 near Galena, Ill.

But, no.  Soon the hood flew open due to a defective latch, ruining it completely.  I replaced it with a gold hood I found at Victory Auto Wreckers, in an era when many dead Volkswagens began filling the junkyards. Later the shiny red paint began to blister and bubble, due to paint over rust.  Soon the engine began to emit clouds of oil smoke, and I knew the GEX engine that came with the car was about to fail.  I pulled the engine, and again with the help of John Muir I rebuilt it in my basement on an antique dresser.  I replaced a failed alternator multiple times, as well as a leaking front main oil seal.  I was becoming a mechanic, lying in the greasy gutter in front of my apartment.

Iowa St. in Chicago, 1994

But in spite of it all, she was a good car.  At last I had a reliable ride to work, and a magic carpet to get us out of the mad and frantic city and into the green splendor of a thick-aired Midwest summer.

Camping in Galena, Ill. 1996

I decided to fix the rust the right way, and worked in the alleyway a solid month chipping and sanding.

after a filthy day in the alley

  Soon she was back in her original orange, and looking damn fine.  It was a proud moment.

Morton Arboretum 1996

But I was spending too much time and energy longing for deep nature, a rare commodity in the plowed under Midwest.  What once was, is gone.

a brand new 1996 Beetle in Hermosillo Mexico

  A long seeking took me to Portland, Oregon - a land with plentiful wilderness and tall trees, and more rain than you can shake a stick at.  And of course, plentiful air cooled Volkswagens.

  I sold the Beetle, bought a Ford Ranger to haul a trailer, and moved West, trying not to look back.